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Extraordinary Woman: To Celebrate IWD 2022, Meet The Future-Forward Artist Shaping A Movement

In the first of our International Women’s Day 2022 series, we meet Sāmoan Australian artist Angela Tiatia, whose rich work explores themes of femininity and empowerment across painting, drawing and film. When OROTON recently joined forces with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, marking the beginning of an ongoing partnership, our design team was immediately struck by Tiatia’s work, not just for its dynamic colour and movement, but also for its poignant messaging. Here, the artist shares the inspiration behind her complex creative process, and the drive behind her extraordinary vision.

Angela Tiatia
The Golden Hour, 2020, video still
Pigment print on 300gsm premium gloss photo paper
67 x 270cm
Edition of 3 plus 2 artist's proofs
Image courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

Angela, we are so inspired by your creative mind – you’ve talked about how your art is a pure and honest response to the world that we live in, can you explain that idea and how it influences you:

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that it’s my own world view, and that I don’t seek to speak on behalf of anyone, so I would hope that the audience is aware that my work represents one particular point of view and it’s honest, it’s about starting a conversation and then it’s up to the audience as to how they interpret it – and that can be difficult emotionally, for both me and the audience. I think being an artist does require a thick skin in a sense, because you’re opening yourself up to criticism and that requires toughness and courage, but we are taught to be resilient at art school, to always be in conversation with each other about the strengths and the weaknesses in our work, and that it’s about exploring themes with rigour, thorough research and sensitivity to ensure that your point of view holds up.”

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...it’s about starting a conversation and then it’s up to the audience as to how they interpret it

– ANGELA TIATIA, ARTIST

Were there women along the way that helped ignite your vision?

“Throughout art school I was really inspired by 60s and 70s female performance artists – one of the works that really spoke to me early on was Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece from 1964. [In Cut Piece, Ono sits alone on stage dressed in her best suit with a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience is instructed to take turns approaching her, using the scissors to cut off a small piece of her clothing, which was theirs to keep.] I found it so beautiful, a simple black and white film that holds up to time because the themes that she explored can relate to this day. I’m also inspired by Marina Abramović and Ana Mendieta and Coco Fusco.”

Angela Tiatia
Holding On, 2015, video still
Single-channel High Definition video 16:9, colour, sound
12 minutes, 12 seconds
Edition of 5 plus 2 artist's proofs
Image courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

Femininity is a recurring theme in your work:

“I think, too, there is the theme of women putting their bodies and their vulnerabilities on the line in order to have those difficult conversations about how female agency is effected by patriarchy. I’m looking at gender, race and power structures and how that can impact groups of women differently – Bell Hooks [the American author, professor, feminist, and social activist] was an incredible resource for me in terms of understanding more about modern day feminism.”

When did you know that this was the right path for you?

“I was young, around 5 years old, and I preferred to draw and write and paint as opposed to any other types of school work. I would make things with my hands and couldn’t get my head around maths and the peculiarities of grammar. My mum is from Sāmoa and moved to New Zealand in the 1960s, and back then there weren’t many job opportunities for Pacific Islanders, apart from manual labour. Mum became a sewing machinist, but I think because of that she always tried to steer me away from becoming an artist, she wanted to ensure I had financial security. That made me put art to the side and take up a commerce degree, which I hated – at the same time, I was good at it and topped the school of commerce by the time I graduated. It just never felt as though it was my path to happiness. So I eventually went to art school and to this day, I say that the commerce degree was for my mum and the arts degree was for me.”

Angela Tiatia
Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis, 2010, video still
Single-channel High Definition video 16:9, colour, no sound
1 minute, 31 seconds
Edition of 5 plus 2 artist's proofs
Image courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

It must have felt like a giant leap at the time? How did you find the confidence to pursue your passion?

“It was all about taking small steps. I graduated from university when I was five months pregnant and that gave me the courage to think beyond myself. The best example that I could be to my child was to live the life that I was passionate about, I was thinking about living a life with passion and purpose. Of course, I was absolutely so fearful about not having enough knowledge in the arts and not being excepted by the community so I approached the local art centre, enrolled in night school and immersed in painting and drawing and I also picked up a video camera, which was something that completed the whole exploration of the arts for me – I wanted to capture the expression and the emotion that you can’t quite draw out on a 2D surface.”

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The best example that I could be to my child was to live the life that I was passionate about

– ANGELA TIATIA, ARTIST

How do you describe your creative mission today, how has it changed?

“It’s interesting because at the Art Gallery of NSW you can see my very first commercial video work displayed alongside my most recent work The Pearl, and I would say that the themes that I explore haven’t changed at all. I’m still talking about power structures and how that impacts Pasifika female identity especially through the lens, and how representation of Pasifika females can change depending on who is behind the camera.”

Angela Tiatia
The Pearl, 2021, video still, Angela Tiatia and Tristan Jalleh
Single-channel 4K video 16:9, colour, sound
9m edition of 8
Image courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

You are putting forward these challenging cultural notions in your work and yet you are doing it with such beauty and sensitivity:

“I hope so – I want to be able to draw the audience in with beauty but then punch out with politics, images that have a certain meaning behind them. Yes, there are works where I am purposefully crossing the lines culturally, but my work is very layered particularly when you take in that I am presenting to multiple audiences. Most importantly, it is about starting the conversation.”

You have received so many accolades, nominations and awards – when you look back, what are most proud of?

“Very recently I took my 19-year-old son to see my pearl film at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and he asked to take a photo of us together in front of it, then I saw later that he posted it online saying, ‘I’m so proud of my mum’. Of all the accolades, that would be the one that has moved me the most.”

At OROTON, we are so inspired by colour; palette forms the foundation of our collections from one season to the next. How are you inspired by colour and different mediums, and can you describe your creative process:

“I research a lot of different sources. With The Pearl, I looked into the Hollywood films of Busby Berkeley [the American film director known for his large-dance choreography]. I loved his film sets, so mad and inspiring and also very structured and symmetrical. I also travelled to Tahiti and set out to look through the eyes of Matisse in the 1930s, to immerse in his colour exploration – then there’s the impressionism movement, ancient mythology, Aphrodite, Venus and Ta-aroa [the Pasifika creator god].”

Angela Tiatia
Lick , 2015, video still
Single-channel High Definition video 16:9, colour, sound
6 minutes, 33 seconds
Edition of 8 plus 2 artist's proofs
Image courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

Is there a place for fashion in your world, do you see it as an art form?

“Absolutely. I love looking at fashion, it’s a source of inspiration that I have referenced throughout my work, and I can see that Sophie [OROTON’s Creative Director] has such a deep love of palette too, her collections build upon colour, which I love. I think colour provides you with a way to draw an audience in more easily, there is a certain vibration between colours that can be soothing and quite fresh at the same time, and that can have such an impact on mood. From the summer collection, I love the green linen dress, energetically it feels so fresh and vibrant. I do pick up on the use of colour and how important that is to a designer, the energy it creates.”

Angela Tiatia
Narcissus, 2019, video still
Single-channel 2k High Definition video, colour
13 minutes, 11 seconds
Edition of 5 plus 2 artist's proofs
Image courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

What are you looking forward to exploring next?

“I’m currently working on the Ian Potter Moving Image commission [Tiatia will be the final artist exhibited in a decade-long series of $100,000 image commissions by the Gallery]. As an artist, it is always so stressful to think about funding, this allows me to focus on my work. In my mind, I need to be just as excited about making the work as being an audience member.”

Angela Tiatia
The fall, 2017, video still
Two-channel High Definition video
16:9, colour, no sound
4 minutes, 58 seconds
Edition of 5 plus 2 artist's proof
Image courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf

Lastly, what is your advice for women at the beginning of their career in the arts?

“I would suggest creating a community of supporting women – and they could be from any industry – but having that base of really inspiring women who come together to share their personal struggles and victories, celebrating and encouraging each other, is just so crucial. And also having an unrelenting vision and standing confident in that: self-belief is probably the most important point of all.”

Angela Tiatia is represented by Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney, https://www.sullivanstrumpf.com/